One of the enduring mysteries surrounding the chaotic attempts to overturn Donald Trump's defeat in the 2020 presidential race results has been solved: who made a secret $1m donation to the controversial election “audit” in Arizona?

The identity of one of the largest benefactors behind the discredited review of Arizona’s vote count has been shrouded in secrecy. Now the Guardian can reveal that the person who partially bankrolled the failed attempt to prove that the election was stolen from Trump was … Trump.

An analysis by the watchdog group Documented has traced funding for the Arizona audit back to Trump’s Save America Pac. The group tracked the cash as it passed from Trump’s fund through an allied conservative group, and from there to a shell company which in turn handed the money to contractors and individuals involved in the Arizona audit.

Cyber Ninjas, the Florida-based company that led the Arizona audit, disclosed in 2021 that $5.7m of its budget came from several far-right groups invested in the “stop the steal” campaign to overturn Joe Biden’s presidential victory. The Arizona Republic later reported that a further $1m had supported the audit from an account controlled by Cleta Mitchell, a Republican election lawyer who advised Trump as he plotted to subvert the 2020 election.

But who gave the $1m to Mitchell? In September 2021, as Cyber Ninjas was preparing to deliver its findings, the New York Times reported that unnamed “officials” had denied that Trump had played any part in securing the funds.

Republican leaders of the Arizona senate who asked Cyber Ninjas to carry out the audit also publicly denied that Trump was involved, saying “this absolutely has nothing to do with Trump”.

Documented’s analysis pierces through that denial. Basing its research on corporate, tax and campaign finance filings, as well as emails and text messages obtained by the non-partisan accountability group American Oversight through public records requests, the watchdog has followed the money on its circuitous journey from the former US president’s Pac to the Arizona review.

‘Highly hypocritical’

Cyber Ninjas’ widely-lambasted inquiry, which was ordered by the Republican-controlled Arizona senate, was focused on Maricopa county, Arizona’s most populated area. Biden won the county by 45,109 votes.

The purported investigation was suffused with wild conspiracy theories, including the claim that bamboo fibers found in ballot sheets proved they had been printed in Asia. The review was decried even by local Republicans as a “grift disguised as an audit”.

Bill Gates, the Republican vice-chair of the Maricopa county board of supervisors at the time of the Cyber Ninjas audit, said he was “disappointed, but not surprised” by the Guardian’s revelation that Trump had helped to pay for it. “I have no problem with audits,” Gates said.

“What I have a problem with is an audit that is undertaken with a goal in mind, and that is literally being funded by one of the candidates. This is absolutely what we do not want to happen.”

Gates pointed out that under Arizona law, electoral candidates are not allowed to fund vote recounts which have to be financed with taxpayer dollars. Though the Cyber Ninjas review was technically not a recount, it served a similar purpose.

“At the very least, it is highly hypocritical for the Arizona state senate to have allowed the audit to be funded in this fashion,” Gates said.

The money trail exposed by Documented begins with Trump’s loosely regulated leadership PAC, Save America, which raised millions in the wake of Trump’s 2020 defeat on the back of the false election fraud narrative. In its final report released in December, the bipartisan January 6 committee investigating the insurrection at the US Capitol highlighted how Save America PAC gave $1 million to the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI).

The committee did not say what the money was for, or where it ended up.

Top CPI officials include Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff, along with other senior Trump insiders after they left the White House. The organisation is developing a political infrastructure to sustain the former president’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement.

Documented’s research shows that discussions around a possible payment from Trump to the Arizona audit began in June 2021. Records obtained by American Oversight reveal that on 27 June, the retired Army colonel and arch election denier Phil Waldron texted the CEO of Cyber Ninjas, Doug Logan, saying: “Kurt is going to talk to 45 today about $$”.

The “45” in the text is a reference to Trump – the 45th president of the US – and “Kurt” may have been a reference to the election-denying lawyer Kurt Olsen. Waldron added: “Mike L talking to Corey L” – alluding to Mike Lindell, chief executive of MyPillow who is a devotee of Trump’s stolen election lie, and the former Trump presidential campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

On 16 July 2021, Waldron asked Logan if he had received “a 1mil [payment] from Corey Lewendowsk [sic]”. He went on: “Supposedly Kurt talked to trump and they got 1 mil for you,” but that “I couldn’t verify who sent and who received.”

Logan responded that he had not yet received payment from Trump.

Ten days later, on 26 July 2021, Trump’s Save America PAC made its $1 million transfer to CPI, according to Federal Election Commission records. Two days after that, on 28 July, a new group called the American Voting Rights Foundation (AVRF) was registered as a corporation in Delaware.

Tax filings obtained recently show that CPI in turn gave $1 million to AVRF in 2021– the only known donation that the group has ever received. The date of CPI’s donation to AVRF is not a matter of public record, but other details – including CPI’s relationship with AVRF, the timing and amounts of the known transfers, and the discussion among Trump allies about the former president’s plans to give $1 million to the audit 10 days before Trump gave $1 million to CPI – clearly indicate that it was the money that came from Trump’s PAC.

Records obtained by American Oversight showed that AVRF was connected to Mitchell, the former Trump lawyer who is now a senior fellow at CPI. She is best known for having taken part in the infamous phone call in January 2021 that is now being weighed by an Atlanta prosecutor, in which Trump tried to pressure Georgia’s top election official to “find 11,780 votes” needed for him to win.

Documented has discovered that the ties between CPI and AVRF went even deeper. CPI entities effectively controlled AVRF.

Tax records show that AVRF’s “direct controlling entity” is America First Legal, the CPI-launched project led by Trump’s former speechwriter Stephen Miller. Tax records also show that another CPI project, the Center for Renewing America, lists AVRF as one of its “related organizations”.

The final stage in the money’s journey was from AVRF to Cyber Ninjas and the audit itself. The same day that AVRF was registered in Delaware – 28 July 2021 – Mitchell sent an email connecting the Cyber Ninjas CEO Logan, together with the spokesman of the audit Randy Pullen, to AVRF’s treasurer Tom Datwyler.

The email, contained in the documents obtained by American Oversight, spelled out that money was about to be transferred from AVRF to Arizona contractors approved by Cyber Ninjas.

The last step was recorded in an email sent the following day, 29 July, in which Mitchell itemized $1 million split into three separate payments going to two entities supporting the audit and to individuals “working at the audit site”. CPI president Ed Corrigan is cc’d on the email.

The money had reached its destination, with no Trump fingerprints anywhere in sight.

The Guardian has invited both Save America Pac and CPI to comment but they did not immediately respond.

“Counter to transparency”

A final mystery remains: why would Trump and his inner circle go to such lengths to keep the former president’s bankrolling of the audit secret? One theory is that Trump might have been worried that the audit would look less credible should he be seen to be funding it.

Another possible scenario is that he feared that the review might prove to be such a shambles that he wanted to keep his distance.

In the end, the Cyber Ninjas audit not only lacked credibility, it also spectacularly failed to meet its goal. In September 2021, the firm released the results of its investigation and found that Biden had indeed won Maricopa County by 360 more votes than the official count.

No conclusive evidence of fraud was uncovered, and the claims raised by the audit were thoroughly debunked in a 93-page report. Cyber Ninjas went out of business in January 2022.

On Thursday, the Arizona Republic reported further fresh evidence that despite the denials Trump was intimately involved in the audit. New records obtained by the newspaper show that Trump was being directly informed about the progress of the audit as it was being conducted.

Newly released messages from the Cyber Ninjas chief Logan also show that he discussed the need for any Trump donation to be made in secret. “I told them there was no way I could take funds directly,” he said in a private digital chat.

Gates, the Maricopa County supervisor, said that a large portion of the $1 million that ended up with the Arizona audit would have come from small donations to Trump’s PAC.

“It’s sad that so many small donors had their money used for this effort, and Trump’s attempt to hide that was certainly counter to transparency.”

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